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Eugene O'Neill

Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning playwright

Eugene Gladstone O'Neill

Eugene Gladstone O'Neill was born in a hotel room in New York City, New York, (in what is now Times Square), on October 16, 1888. He was the son of James O'Neill, a well-known actor. His mother became addicted to morphine soon after his birth, and he would learn later in life that it was his birth in specific that led to that addiction. He would subsequently dramatize her tragic life in Long Day's Journey Into Night. With his mother unable to care for him, he spent the first seven years of his life traveling with his father's theater company.

Eugene entered the strict Catholic St. Aloysius Academy for Boys in September 1895, and the equally strict Catholic DeLa Salle Institute in Manhattan, New York, in 1900. Finding the rigid rules imposed upon him too much, he renounced Catholicism and entered the non-sectarian Betts Academy in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1902. He entered Princeton University in 1906, but was kicked out within a year due to poor academics and heavy drinking. He then moved back to New York City, where he spent most of his time drinking and carousing with his older brother.

Just as O'Neill seemed to be hitting rock bottom, he met and fell in love with Kathleen Jenkins, whom he married in 1909. The marriage failed to curb his wanderlust, however, and soon after the wedding he sailed as a seaman to Honduras. Contracting malaria, he returned to New York long enough to find Kathleen pregnant, then shipped out to Argentina and England. His son, Eugene O'Neill, Jr., was born in May 1910, but Eugene Sr. would not see him until he was 11 years old.

After returning to New York, O'Neill lived in a rundown boarding house/saloon, where he attempted suicide in 1912. His living situation would later become the setting for The Iceman Cometh, one of his best-known plays. Kathleen tired of his no-care lifestyle and divorced him that same year. His life was also racked that year by a serious bout with tuberculosis, for which he was admitted to a sanatorium.

It was while recovering at the sanatorium that O'Neill decided to become a playwright. After taking a playwriting course at Harvard in 1914, he spent another mostly drunken year. In 1916 he became associated with the Princetown Players, a theater group. It was this group that staged his first play, Bound East for Cardiff, in 1916. The group subsequently formed the Playwrights' Theatre in Greenwich Village, and staged several O'Neill plays over the subsequent years.

In 1918, O'Neill married fellow author Agnes Boulton, with whom he had two children -- Shane and Oona. His years with Agnes would prove to be his most productive, with almost half of his plays being written over the next ten years.

O'Neill's first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, premiered on Broadway on February 3, 1920. It was for this play that he was rewarded with the first of four Pulitzer Prizes (the last was awarded posthumously).

The next few years of O'Neill's life were a mixture of success and tragedy. His father suffered a stroke barely a week after Beyond the Horizon opened, his mother died in 1922, and his brother died in 1923. Long Day's Journey Into Night dramatized the lives and deaths of these, and other, family members.

In 1928, O'Neill left Agnes to pursue a relationship with Carlotta Monterey, an actress who had appeared in the Broadway production of The Hairy Ape. Married in 1929, the couple lived in France for a time, then Sea Island, Georgia, and finally Danville, California. It was during this period of his life that O'Neill wrote what many consider to be his best works.

In 1936, O'Neill became the first, and to date only, American dramatist to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

By the early 1940's, Parkinson's disease was seriously hampering O'Neill's ability to write. In addition, relations with his children, which had never been good to begin with, got very bad. In 1943 he disowned daughter Oona because she married comedian Charlie Chaplin, who was then about Eugene's age. In 1948 son Shane was arrested for heroin possession, and, in 1950, Eugene, Jr., committed suicide.

Eugene and Carlotta spent the last days of his life in a hotel room in Boston, Massachusetts, where he died on November 27, 1953.

Partial List of His Plays

Bread and Butter (1914)
Children of the Sea
Bound East for Cardiff
The Long Voyage Home
In the Zone (1919)
Where the Cross is Made (1919)
The Rope (1919)
Moon of the Caribees (1919)
Gold (1920)
The Dreamy Kid (1920)
The Emperor Jones (1920)
Beyond the Horizon
(1920--Pulitzer Prize, 1920)
The Straw (1921)
The Hairy Ape (1921)
Anna Christie (1922--Pulitzer Prize, 1922)
Welded (1924)
All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924)
The Fountain (1925)
Desire Under the Elms (1925)
Marco Millions (1925)
The Great God Brown(1926)
Strange Interlude (1928--Pultizer Prize, 1928)
Lazarus Laughed (1928)
Dynamo (1929)
Mourning Becomes Electra (1931)
Nine Plays (1932)
Ah, Wilderness (1933)
Days Without End (1933)
The Iceman Cometh (1939, released 1946)
Long Day's Journey into Night (1940, released 1956--Pulitzer Prize, 1957)
A Touch of the Poet (1942)
A Moon for the Misbegotten (1952)
Hughie (1959)


American Experience: Eugene O'Neill
Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site

See Also

Nobel Prize for Literature
Charlie Chaplin

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The Robinson Library >> American Literature >> 1900-1960

This page was last updated on 02/03/2019.